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Finding—and keeping—niche markets

Alberta’s Zavisha Sawmills is finding the formula for success is working hard to develop and service specialty niche markets.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Photo pg 14 Zavisha Sawmills owner Glen Zavisha (right) with son and operations manager Ashley (and four-legged friend). “We’ve had diversification in our wood production since 1987 and we’ve been reasonably successful,” says Glen.

Zavisha Sawmills has become very, very good at sawing softwood for high-value recovery—an approach developed over time through its strategy of controlled expansion and diversification. And the approach it takes to manufacturing and marketing specialty softwood products is exactly the approach that the Alberta government hopes other sawmills will take to overcome tariffs on softwood lumber exports to the United States. That said, it’s hard to believe that this family-run sawmill located in the small, rural community of Hines Creek is actually being held back from expansion.

They are currently waiting for the provincial government’s decision on how to re-allocate the massive timber holdings originally assigned to the now defunct Grande Alberta Paper project. At present, Zavisha Sawmills is the second largest employer in Hines Creek—a community about an hour north of Grande Prairie—with 45 sawmill employees and 15 more seasonal jobs for area residents during logging operations. About 50 per cent of its 10 million board feet annual production consists of specialty products such as facia, both green and finished timbers, timbers for log homes, custom sawn products for traditional home building in Japan, and 2x10 planks that typically end up as scaffolding. In fact, 2x9 scaffolding from Zavisha Sawmills was used during the recent refurbishing of the Statue of Liberty in New York City.

Given the current state of the dimensional lumber market, Zavisha is counting on its specialty wood products to carry it through some tough times. The ability to bend with the times, and often follow its own path, has served the company well—they learned that lesson long before the current American tariff. The most recent example was when the original softwood lumber agreement was signed. Zavisha Sawmills received only a small softwood lumber quota. “We were getting used to living without the American market,” says sawmill owner Glen Zavisha. The company still managed to find decent markets for its most popular 2x4 and 2x10 dimension lumber products.

These large squares manufactured at Zavisha Sawmills are either sold as is, or remanufactured into specialty product on the mill’s Brewer band saw.

Working primarily through brokers, Zavisha has acquired—over 30 years—the experience of navigating the company through peaks and downturns, largely by finding niche markets that larger companies either tend to ignore or avoid. While its biggest markets are presently Canada, the US and Japan, over the years the company has also exported its products to the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, France, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Australia and Taiwan. “We’ve had diversification in our wood production since 1987,” says Zavisha, “and we’ve been reasonably successful. It’s kept us in the industry, and our products are well received. Our problem in some cases is a shortage of timber supply. Right now, only about 35 per cent of our timber is secure.”

In other words, they could supply more niche markets with specialty products if they could only find the timber. Glen’s brother Wade oversees planing operations, while son Ashley works in marketing and human resources. Ashley’s wife Beckie is office manager. Ashley, a business management graduate, has shown considerable interest in carrying on in the business founded by his grandfather Henry in 1943. Another son, Greg, is currently enrolled in the wood engineering technology program at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT).

Wood supply is a challenge for the company these days. They could supply more niche markets with specialty products if they could find more timber. And whether it is shavings for horse stalls or sawdust for the local particleboard plant, Zavisha Sawmills is a highly diversified producer and marketer of Alberta forest fibre.

Born in Massachusetts, young Henry Zavisha moved with his family to Outlook, Saskatchewan in 1918. As a young man, he started out in the railroad industry, then ended up working as a bridge painter for the Alberta government. Glen says that his father “painted” his way to Alberta’s Peace Country, where he joined his brother-in-law in the logging and sawmilling business. They established a sawmill and planer mill in the bush. While his brother-in-law decided to take up farming, Henry carried on with the lumber business.

He moved operations to Hines Creek in the 1960s and built the legacy operation that now has third generation family members actively involved in the business. Glen joined the company in 1960 and took over the company reins fully when his father passed away in 1973. Today, about 95 per cent of the sawmill’s logs are spruce, with the remainder consisting of lodgepole pine and balsam fir. They are harvested from a small company-owned quota acquired in 1965, as well as a quota Zavisha owns jointly with Canfor that it purchased in 1994. Canfor operates a stud mill in the community.

The balance of Zavisha’s timber supply comes from private wood sources, commercial timber licences and incidental conifer the company acquires from the Daishowa Marubeni International (DMI) pulp mill in Peace River. The company has maintained a gradual pace of expansion and capital spending over the past 20 years. It started with the purchase of a PHL scragg in 1984 to process its smaller logs. Ten years later, Zavisha invested in an Aerodyne kiln with an 80,000-board-feet capacity, which opened up new export markets. In 1998, the company made a major investment into producing specialty wood products with the purchase of a US-built Brewer five-head bandsaw.

Zavisha Sawmills has developed the unique practice of grading cants from its large log line, then determining the end product from that cant based on its grade. High-grade cants are transported to the Brewer bandsaw, where they are broken down into either dimension lumber, facia or other specialty products. “Using the Brewer has allowed us to reduce our saw kerf, and gives us the flexibility to complete a production change overnight if market conditions dictate a change is required,” says Zavisha.

The Brewer bandsaw cuts with .084 of an inch kerf, providing the sawmill with high recovery and superior accuracy. The Brewer also comes equipped with a multi-saw trim system and stacker. Although the company purchased a C-frame carriage system to handle its 12- to 24-inch logs in 1994, Zavisha didn’t put it into production until 2000 when a bigger log supply made it economical. It was designed and built locally by Dika Industries in Rycroft.

Now in full production, it has replaced the sawmill’s old carriage saw system and is largely responsible for manufacturing cants before they are graded. Zavisha explains the company’s rationale for grading and handling cants this way. “If you have a bull edger behind cant production in a sawmill, everything that comes out of there is dimension lumber,” he says. “Regardless of how high the value that cant is, you can’t get any better value than dimension lumber out of it. Our way, if there is higher value, we are able to capitalize on that.”

The original carriage system is still in active use for breaking down logs over 24 inches. In 2000, Zavisha purchased a Morbark 4 X 40 Rosser style debarker to handle its largest logs. It has the added benefit of reducing log flare. The local Canfor stud mill provides a regular supply of large logs, as that mill is designed for high production from smaller logs. Also in 2000, Zavisha purchased and installed a West Plains band re-saw to gain maximum recovery, particularly from slabs produced by the large log line.

This replaced an older existing circular saw system. “It has computer setworks,” says Zavisha, “so we can virtually recover any thickness we want. Actually, when you think about it, a lot of our production goes through bandsaws. They require less horsepower, offer a thinner kerf and better accuracy. The downside is that your maintenance is higher.” All of the company’s log harvesting is contracted out. Logs are delivered tree length, and anything under 24 inches is fed through a Nicholson A5, 27-inch debarker.

Oversize logs proceed to the Morbark debarker. After debarking, the logs accumulate on a bucking deck. Smaller logs proceed to the PHL scragg line, which is also equipped with a Sherman gang edger. Mid-size logs between 12 and 24 inches proceed to the C-frame carriage system, which produces square cants. Depending on grade, the cant either proceeds through the 8-inch mainline edger or is dropped out, stacked and transported to the Brewer bandsaw for optimizing. Slabs are conveyed to the West Plains band re-saw and chip material is processed through a Forano chipper.

Dimension lumber production is manually stacked, and prepared for the Aerodyne kiln. The Brewer bandsaw has its own stacker. Very little wood fibre is wasted. Shavings collected from Zavisha’s Yates A62, 10-knife planer and trim system are bagged and marketed for bedding. Sawdust is sold to the Newpro particleboard plant at Wanham or to an environmental services company for use in containing oil spills. Although it’s now a mainstay of the small community of Hines Creek, the well-run mill has had to earn its success.

It is hoping the Alberta government recognizes the sawmill’s contribution to the value-added softwood lumber market and rewards it for its efforts with a larger, more secure timber allocation. The company has worked hard to improve itself, making ongoing investments in its operations. That’s a path that the company would like to follow further, provided it gets the opportunity.

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